Visioning San Francisco Past

Back in the summer of ’96, writer and Processed World editor Chris Carlsson began to piece together what he describes as “a living archive of the city.” Carlsson, who was in at the start of the bicycle activist group Critical Mass, teamed up with a small posse, all inspired by a zeal to share the stories that build a city’s cultural and natural history, dream by dream. “What happened behind those windows over there?” Carlsson remembers wondering. “Where were the creeks and rivers and wetlands?” The curiosities of individuals in the group, coupled with a growing collection of old photos, books, and maps, drove the project. Carlsson had lived in San Francisco nearly 20 years; it was time to discover exactly what this meant.

The group intended the stories to be presented in public kiosks scattered around town. But the vision eventually morphed into a web site. Today—a decade later—Shaping San Francisco is a seductive hydra: with about 1,300 pages divided into 52 chapters, the sprawling site is, in the words of its creator, “a perfect example of a mental illness.”

As intended, the site is an ideal tool for understanding the bones of the modern metropolis. All the city’s neighborhoods are represented; pick a race, sexual orientation, religion, gender, or profession and learn how such communities influenced the land- and folkscape.

In addition to continually working on the site, Carlsson leads pedal-powered tours that make visible how class struggle and natural history are an integral part of San Francisco. His passions are evident online as well: snippets of botanical tours from 1945 share cyberspace alongside interviews with ’30s union organizers. One can study photos of pre-Sunset District sand dunes or of the Symbionese Liberation Army safe house in Bernal Heights. And you can place yourself in the virtual topography by clicking on any one of 49 hills.

Carlsson says the motivating question behind the dozen-years-and-counting endeavor is one of how to approach history. “Partly [Shaping San Francisco was] going to stage a revolt against American-style history,” he explains. “Objectivity from a historical point of view is just laughable to me.” Aside from oral interviews, he says most of the source information on the site is written by someone else—”usually some white guy, usually in a newspaper”—thus begging the issue of veracity. Carlsson and the hundreds of other volunteer contributors to the project have added their own sensibilities about class and ecology in attempts to set the record, if not straight, then more accurately Lombard-like.

More than ten years after Carlsson began compiling facts on his 500-megabite hard drive, the project about the past has itself become a slice of the city’s history. He’s currently working on converting the files to a Wikipedia format so that anyone with a keyboard can add to and update the hundreds of pages, though he admits such freedom could usher in a panoply of subjective dramas: “What if the Maoists want to put in their take on San Francisco’s history?”

Carlsson is not fond of the typical reaction to the project: awe. He laments that it’s “kind of discouraging,” explaining that he’d rather it inspire others to use technology to strengthen community involvement and connection to a place. He lauds a similar site he was recently turned on to:, a storytelling project created by two students in CSU East Bay’s Multimedia Graduate Program, which focuses on downtown Oakland and the area around Lake Merritt. The nascent site is very user-friendly, with viewers easily able to participate through clicking on a map to locate stories and by adding their own tales. “It’s a perfect example of what Shaping San Francisco should evolve into,” Carlsson says.

Get lost in the city at or visit the kiosks at the Main Library in downtown San Francisco and Counterpulse, 1310 Mission St.

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